June 21st, the start of our Alaska Food challenge, is a long way off, but somehow the nightly conversation always comes back to it. “So… what are we going to do about ….x?” After all, eating is a big part of our lives. A major piece of the puzzle is grain. Alaska isn’t exactly known for its grain industry, and I don’t know of any local flour mills. Can we live without the flour products we have all become so accustomed to in our culture? What to do without pizza, bread, tortillas, cake, and cookies?
So far we’ve learned that hull-less barley is available. One member of the food challenge group bought a 50 lb sack from a farmer in Delta Junction and shared some with us. But what to do with it? How much barley soup can we eat? We heard that some farmers might also grow wheat. It is more risky than barley, as it doesn’t always mature in our short summers. And once we get it, we have to figure out how to grind it into flour.
So, Matt and I decided we needed a grain mill. We thought carefully about this, as we are opposed to kitchen gadgets, but it became apparent to us that this was a tool that would be extremely useful for our eat-local year, as well as for many years to come. Purchasing whole grains and milling them into fresh flour is not only cheaper, but also much more nutritious.
We bought a Country Living Mill, which is a hand-crank cast steel mill with no aluminum in the plates. They assemble and test each mill in the factory, so it came with a flour sample of wheat ground in our mill. It should last at least 100 years, so hopefully our great-grandchildren will enjoy milling flour!
Neither Matt or I had ground flour before, much less used barley four in our cooking, and we were anxious to try. Our first experiment was to make barley pasta. A cup of flour, pinch of salt, a couple of eggs and a touch of oil. It seemed grainy when I mixed it together, but I let it rest, and when I rolled it out, I got long, thin, brown speckled linguini. I made a sauce with lentils and root vegetables, which seemed like a perfect winter meal, and it was. Rich, but not too heavy, the barley pasta added a light, nutty flavor, and complimented the earthy vegetables perfectly.
We also tried making a blueberry coffee cake (great!) and pizza dough (not so great.) It seems that barley can actually replace a good portion of the wheat flour we are accustomed to using, but not all. With some wheat flour, we can make just about anything using all-Alaskan grains.
Luckily, James, who lives downstairs, found a farmer in Delta who is growing wheat and many other experimental things you aren’t supposed to be able to grow in Alaska. This is just the kind of guy we like to make friends with! We have to buy it by the ton, so James made a spreadsheet to see how much wheat or other grains people would be interested in purchasing this year. In just a few days, 25 people signed up, wanting to buy 2300 lbs of wheat, and over 4000 lbs of other grains!! Talk about demand!!
It seems like the Alaska Food Challenge is already fulfilling its intended purpose of creating demand for local products and connecting producers and consumers, even before it begins!